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Chicago’s New Wage Theft Ordinance is a Model for Other Cities

Ameya Pawar, ordinance sponsor

A new ordinance that aims to crack down on wage theft in Chicago and Cook County passed city council on January 17th. The ordinance creates a scenario in which businesses guilty of such charges could lose their licenses to operate. It was proposed by Alderman Ameya Pawar. 

Pawar’s Ward 47 has had just 14 reports of wage theft in the past decade but the problem is much more severe around town. Arise Chicago, an organization that advocates for worker justice and education, claims to field roughly 12 calls or walk-ins about wage theft each day. With the passage of this ordinance Pawar hopes the city and county can begin the crack down:

“When you talk about building resilient communities, financial resiliency has to be a major part of that and part of what I saw in vulnerable communities… they’re working places where their employers were stealing from them.”

Arise Chicago released a study about car wash workers in the region last September that showed 98 percent of workers weren’t compensated for overtime hours. Among the study’s other findings,

One-third of employees and almost 70 percent of all car washes in the city were surveyed. More than 75 percent of those workers earned below minimum wage and 98 percent of workers weren’t compensated for overtime hours. The average employee washed cars for 54 hours a week.

The study exposes wage theft through delayed payments, no overtime pay and unpaid off-the-clock work.

Refugees and single parents are the most likely victims of wage theft, Pawar said. His connection to the issue stems from his time working at Heartland Alliance Refugees and Immigrant Community Services.

Pawar takes this issue so personally because he was a wage theft victim as a youth. He was paid $3 an hour plus tips to valet cars.

“Getting that $3 an hour from the company was almost impossible. They delayed paying me for weeks on end, which is wage theft, and in some cases, they just wouldn’t pay me,” he said.

Pawar seems to be a rising star in the region’s political scene, partially based on the issues he chooses to take up. Along with the wage theft ordinance Pawar has passed legislation dealing with how debt collectors attempt to recover debts. He has also fought to end the practice of unemployment discrimination:

In February 2012, he helped pass an ordinance that added credit history and unemployment amendments to the human rights framework. Along with race and sexual orientation, job advertisements cannot ban unemployed applicants. Also, employers cannot inquire or make hiring decisions based on the credit history of an applicant.

According to the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Center for Urban Economic Development over $7 million is stolen from workers in Cook county each week.


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